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Why We Must Continue To Highlight The Chechen Internment Of Gay Men

14/04/2017 15:36 BST | Updated 14/04/2017 20:14 BST

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Vigil outside Russian Embassy, London, 12 April 2017

If you have been following the news and particularly social media over the last few days, there has been a worrying report from the usually-reliable Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta - the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has opened a 'concentration camp' for gay men who have been rounded up as part of a cleansing operation in the region. It seems that this may have arisen from LGBT activists asking for permission to hold pride marches in various cities in Russia (although no application was made in Grozny, Chechnya's capital). Currently estimates suggest around 100 have been detained and subject to torture, resulting in several deaths.

The statement from Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov was particularly chilling in its negation of gay men even as people: 'You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic. If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.' 

Many governments have issued condemnatory statements, including the Foreign Office, US State Department and many European countries, subject in each case to noting that these are as yet only allegations, although we now have corroborated first-hand accounts from reports on Radio Free Europe.

Rightly, many members of the LGBT community and their supporters are looking to make their voices heard as well, through comment, petition and demonstration. In London, there was a vigil outside the Russian embassy yesterday, where hundreds of the LGBT community and their supporters attended, with signs highlighted that this was a repeat of history 80 years ago. Apart from a window that opened and then closed, there was no sign of activity from within the embassy. The crowd was serious but determined, and we left pink flowers outside the embassy gates in the form of a pink triangle, the symbol that was affixed to gay men in concentration camps, a symbol that we thought has been consigned to history.

What about the region where this is happening? Chechnya is a small, war-torn and semi-autonomous region in the south of the Russian Federation led by the local 'strongman' (warlord) Kadyrov, a serial human-rights abuser. While this is terrible for Chechen gay men (or men alleged to be gay), we should be very concerned that there may be calls from ultra-conservative politicians that this treatment and behaviour could spread throughout Russia.

Let's start with the basics. While Putin has nominal control over Kadyrov, in fact Kadyrov rules Chechnya as a stand-alone leader with his own militia and is capable of organising assassinations (as with opposition leader Boris Nemstov). Putin has no interest in challenging Kadyrov, and maybe does not have the local strength to do so. Secondly, Putin himself is feeling weakened. After the US airstrikes in Syria, Putin has lost some of his ability to declare domestically that Russia is the ruling superpower in the Middle East.

In the case of any setback, Putin usually likes to demonstrate strength in another area. For a conservative country with Slavic values (as Putin often notes), criticising the treatment of gay men is a sign of weakness from a leader, not strength. Add into that the popularity and power of the Russian Orthodox Church and it is unlikely that we will see any comment from the Russian government criticising the events in Chechnya.

It is unlikely also that foreign governments will continue to push this case. Many in the current US government are not known to be pro-LGBT, and the issues surrounding Syria are taking up the attention of the world.

So what can be done? At a time when the powers-that-be are focussed on different (and major) events, the power of protests and demonstrations is extremely important. We must pressure our governments to keep the Chechen concentration camps on the agenda at any meeting with Russian officials. Putin may have little actual power over Kadyrov, and so Chechen policy may not change, but he needs to be reminded that other countries will not tolerate any expansion of torture, detention and murder of men who are assumed to be gay. If Putin struggles to maintain his pre-eminent position in Syria, and if continued economic stagnation leads to increased unrest on the streets of Russia, he will need another way to show that he remains strong. It must be made clear by the international community that turning a blind eye to the persecution and murder of gay men must not be that way.

These protests should continue - perhaps regular vigils following the model of the protest movement 'Strategy 31' in Russia (which holds unapproved demonstrations on the 31st of a month, reflecting Article 31 of the Russian Civil Code that allows freedom of assembly, a right ignored by Russian authorities). And our allies can help too - recall the rainbow flags worn by many athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi when the local mayor declared that there were no gay people in Sochi.

Yesterday's protest was a start, but we must find new ways to keep this horror in people's minds. Without such international scrutiny, there is a risk that other regions in Russia decide that this is an interesting example worth trying, as happened with Russia's anti-gay legislation. In a country where 20 per cent of the population thinks that gay people should be 'isolated from society' and 41 per cent think that the state should persecute people with 'untraditional sexual preferences' in order to 'exterminate the phenomenon', we have no option but to remain vigilant, and remain loud.

Steve Wardlaw is an LGBT activist and chairman of Emerald Life, a UK-based insurance provider for the LGBT community and its allies. He previously lived with his husband in Moscow for 8 years as head of a US law firm working with Russian oil and gas companies.